In the Time of Love: A Short Story
July 27, 2014
IT WAS THE DOG DAYS of summer, the heat and humidity of July causing even the most motivated to sink into lethargy, sulky and brooding. Jill was a fine example. She lay stretched out on the sofa of her grandmother’s back porch shaded by two huge old maple trees. She was trying to finish one of the ten books she needed to read before her junior year in Literature began in September, but she was distracted. The heat had stuck her T-shirt to her like a second skin and her naturally curly hair now looked like Orphan Annie’s, but today she hardly noticed. She doodled on her legal pad where she had been taking notes on Ulysses. She drew a big “M” thickening the lines with each pass and thinning out to curlicues on the ends. She spoke her thoughts to the steamy air, “What has happened with him?” The him referred to her boyfriend of two years. Matt and she had seemed such a great fit she thought. They had the same sense of humor, the same dreams and seemed so compatible. Then he got a grant to work on a science project this summer and rather than encourage her to stay and seek work in the adjacent town, he suggested they take the summer off.
“Off from what,” she asked confused.
“No I don’t know.” She could feel her stomach knotting up.
“Sometimes it’s good for two people to have a break from each other.”
“Explain to me why? I’m not seeking a break from you. So that seems to leave you who need a break, I guess, from me. What’s going on?”
“I’m just feeling corralled.”
“I thought we were enjoying each other, that we both liked being together. How did I get that wrong?”
“I just need some space that’s all…” each word accented by his frustration. His face twisted in annoyance as he shoved himself away from the table with a force that pushed the table toward her. Somewhere between apologizing or being miffed, he chose to walk out with no reply.
That night, Jill packed up her belongings, loaded them in her friend, Judy’s car and left school for the summer holiday. She asked Judy to drop her off in another small college town where her grandmother lived. Jill, a child of divorce, found living with her grandmother the best of her options. So late that same evening, she unloaded her belongings into her attic bedroom at her Granny Bette’s and prepared to live there for the summer, alone.
Jill got up from the sofa, picked up James Joyce’s heavy tome and walked back into the house to find Granny Bette in the kitchen. She stood in the doorway staring at Bette. She hadn’t noticed before just how young-looking this 62 year-old semi-retired English Lit professor was, but she had noticed how enigmatic. Usually old people walked about embarrassingly unmasked for Jill, like they didn’t care anymore what you noticed about them. But Bette, she displayed an air of dignity that made Jill comfortable in her presence.
Bette turned from the stove where she was making curry and stared back at Jill. “Is it Ulysses that’s proving in tolerable or just life in general?
Jill smiled, the kindness in Bette’s eyes softening her frustration.”
“Life is beginning to make Ulysses look like child’s play.”
“Ooh. Sounds like heart disease to me.”
Jill chuckled this time, then asked, “Granny Bette, what do you know about men?”
“The worst and the best, my darling child, yes, the worst and the best.” Her gaze drifted off for a second as if she was recalling it all.
Jill didn’t know where to start with that reply so she stuck to her present problem. “Matt says he needs space. I don’t understand that statement. Why would someone need space?”
Without a pause, Bette starting reeling off the reasons. “Possibility one, the most obvious, he’s flirting with another relationship. Possibility two, he’s getting nervous about the seriousness of his relationship with you. Responsibility scares him. Possibility three, he’s a cad and a liar. Let’s hope that isn’t the case. Possibility four, he’s a dolt who truly can’t separate uncut gems from beach pebbles.”
“How many possibilities are there, for god sakes?”
“You don’t really want an answer to the question, do you?”
“What scares me most is that I never saw any of this coming. Am I that obtuse that I actually thought we were in love with each other, only one of us wasn’t? What are the rules here? What about fair play?”
Bette considered her, studying the face of this sensitive, dark-eyed young woman. She reminded Bette of herself at that age, a believer in goodness rewarded, but she knew Jill’s understanding of men and women in love, however, was a fool’s tale at best.
“Dear girl, there is no greater treachery than the affairs of love. Anytime humans are attempting to complete the cosmic equation of one plus one equals one, stresses and strains abide. It’s then that each participant’s true character is revealed, often as surprising to oneself as to the other. Which way do they lean under pressure – toward kindness and tolerance, inflexibility and control, blame and judgment or do they just jump ship? It’s the ultimate gamble.”
“Is it worth it? I mean what’s the point if it’s so difficult and the odds seem against you from the start? You’re single and your life looks full and satisfying.”
Jill stopped dead when Bette said that. She suddenly realized she didn’t know the first thing about Granny Bette’s life other than the obvious.
“So you chose to be single?”
“I would say neither yes nor no. It’s not so straight forward as you would imagine. He was my childhood sweetheart. People had those back in the day. The half-hour shag, the jumping into bed with a stranger was definitely the exception, not the rule like the world you live in. We had time to determine who this person was to us. We had time to get in touch with the part of us that knows the truth about such things as love. They didn’t frighten us then, just amazed us. No one wants to take the time it takes anymore.”
Jill was leaning against the kitchen wall listening, but now her frustration came out as a challenge, “You don’t think two years is enough time to know someone?”
“Let me ask you this. Do you know him?”
“I thought I did, but what’s happening now seemed to have come out of nowhere.”
“How has he indicated to you that he loves you?”
“We get along. He’s pleasant to me.” Jill was struggling to get a list past two items.
“Getting along is hardly the height of relationship. It’s merely a starting point.”
“Well, how would you answer that with this guy of your childhood?” Jill flung the words defensively at Granny Bette.
“I knew him first as tender. Have you known tenderness from a man? Has a man ever touched your face as if it were breakable, like thin-walled china or Waterford crystal? In that place their awe is palpable, their vulnerability completely exposed. There is something extraordinary about a man’s fierceness and strength when experienced through the lens of tenderness. I knew him tender.
“I also knew him as completing. We women were on the edge of making a damnable mistake back then. We set out to prove our worth to a male dominated world. One can prove a mathematical equation or prove the necessity of eating well and exercising, but one cannot prove the worth of a fellow human being or gender. It immediately begs the question, who’s in doubt? We fought so hard to stand alone, singular and independent that we almost annihilated our chances to understand that the law of the cosmos is that we depend on each other without being dependent on each other. When he and I were together it was like a ten thousand piece puzzle that fell naturally into its assembled form. We had nothing to do with that except to be willing to bring all of ourselves to the experience.
“And finally, I knew him as someone who respected and valued me. I was someone he would have died for, not out of some machismo reflex but because he knew he had found someone he treasured.”
Somewhere in Bette’s discourse, Jill had slid down the wall like someone pinned to and was now sitting on the floor hardly breathing. One part of her wanted to scream this is sentimental tripe, but it just couldn’t get past the part of her that so longed to know what Bette was talking about. Those two forces held her immobile.
The kitchen grew still. Bette appeared to have traveled back in time, her face softening with memories running deep and dear. Jill’s expression was more analytic, like she was evaluating, perhaps for the first time, what she knew of this man and what it meant to her.
The first of bird even-songs began to drift through the open windows. The sun was long and low, releasing the world from the intensity of the afternoon heat. A bit of cooling breeze picked up and drifted lightly through the room where these two women talked much like women have done throughout time when caught up in the mysteries and marvels of men.
Jill spoke first. She had to clear her throat, to get the words to come out. She didn’t like how it made her feel, but as the thoughts merged into words and the words into sounds, she sighed deeply. “I don’t think I know the first damned thing about love, most especially with men. My relationship feels akin to a shopping list – what he’s got that I think I want and what he doesn’t that I think I need. Where’s love in that? And the sex is already waning because it’s no longer a language expressing joy, or appreciation or awe. It’s just a physical act that sometimes results in a momentarily pleasurable sensation.”
Only then did she raise her eyes to seek Bette’s, her expression that of a scared and wounded child. “How do I ever find love, Granny Bette, how do I do that?”
“Just stop looking for it and let it come to you. Invest in yourself, choose a course that engages you and keeps you interested in life, be real. For life lived in that manner becomes the beacon that the man, who is to love you, will see. Don’t take second best – ever.”
Jill felt strangely unburdened. She had feared earlier that her world would come apart if Matt didn’t want her anymore. But now she felt relieved. She had been asking all the wrong questions, much like remodeling a room when she should have been looking for the right house.
Jill turned to Bette for there was still one question she wanted answered. “Did you choose to stay single?”
Bette answered with a twinkle in her eye. “Yes and no.”
Jill rolled her eyes and then watched the struggle that started playing across Bette’s face.
Her words came quiet but sure. “He was my world. I would thrill to the sight of him, and I can say without doubt that would still be the case if he were here today. We were luckier than your generation. We lived in the time of love when people took things slower and let the love that was there ripen and blossom. But we also lived in the time of war. He went off to Vietnam and never came back. Maybe some people get two great loves in a lifetime, but I wasn’t one of those.”
The twilight was upon them now. Shadows darkened the kitchen as Jill rose from the floor, walked over to her granny and hugged her, this women she now knew for the first time. Her final question as to whether love was worth it had been answered as well. It was clear her granny still lived in the time of love, and Jill took great comfort from that.
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